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Reading To Kill a Mockingbird in jail

Charlotte's Big Read ends today. For the past month and a half, the classic To Kill a Mockingbird has been the subject of reading groups and classes at the urging of the public library. One is a group of teenagers detained in the Mecklenburg County Jail.

This book group is tightly guarded. Three thick metal doors separate it from the outside world. Classrooms are filled with inmates in green and orange suits sitting at desks. Everything from English classes to life skills courses takes place in these rooms. In the library, five teenagers are preparing to discuss To Kill a Mockingbird. They chose to be here. "I like the debate process and stuff. That's fun to me and it's a way to get out of your room," says one.

The group is surrounded by shelves holding classic literature, the latest thrillers and self-help books. The five young men have spent between three to seven months in jail. They've been charged with crimes like breaking into cars and armed robbery. None of them has been found guilty. The teenagers wear green jumpsuits instead of the bright orange because of their age. They're all seventeen and one is a few weeks away from moving to the jail's adult section. The group is comparing notes on To Kill a Mockingbird.

"For those who don't know me, I'm Mrs. Ellington with the Public Library." Connie Ellington leads a handful of book groups. She works with pregnant teens, senior citizens and twice a month she comes to the jail. "You can experience different things in a book that you normally don't hear about. And also to learn new facts and to think about the choices the character made in the book. And then the choices you need to make in life - better choices. Okay?" explains Ellington. The teenagers nod and appear mildly interested.

To Kill a Mockingbird wasn't exactly easy-going for them. The novel set in a small southern town in the 1930s is hard for them to connect with. They go over characters: Scout the tomboy who narrates the story, her father Atticus a lawyer who defends Tom Robinson. He's a black man who is falsely accused of raping a white woman.

"He got locked up for something he didn't do and they killed him at the end," says one young man. All of the teenagers in the group are black. What captures their attention is not so much the racism in the fictional town of Maycomb, but the injustice of the court system. Inevitably, the discussion turns to their own circumstances. No one says they're above the law, but they do remark that some criminals have it better than others"

"Sometime it's like if you don't have money for a real lawyer the court-appointed lawyer isn't going to do his job right. So you might be misrepresented."

"You don't think the court-appointed lawyer went to school just like a paid lawyer?" asks Ellington. "They don't care though because they get paid either way."

"If you go to trial with a public defender nine times out of ten you're going to lose, but if you go to trial with a paid lawyer, nine times out of ten you're going to win."

A few of these young men say they're getting ready to sign plea deals and most of them believe they'll be out in a few months. They're preparing for life in the outside world and ideally this book club is part of the training to move forward. They've attended classes and two of them are reading up on colleges.

But take that promise of freedom away and the consensus here is life wouldn't be worth living: "Why do you think Tom would rather be killed than go to jail?" asks Ellington. "He's going to rot in jail."

"I'd rather do the same thing. You're still going to be dead in jail. Ain't nobody going to care out there. You're still going to be dead. You're just still going to be around a whole bunch of dudes. "But you can live in jail. You can make this situation while you in jail by getting an education, working on your social skills, your conflict skills, if you have a problem with anger," argues Ellington. "But if he's going to spend his whole life in jail all that don't even matter."

After an hour Ellington begins to wrap up the discussion with a line from the book examined by countless other book groups and school classes: "What does the quote you have to walk in somebody's shoes or their skin in order to know how they feel. What does that mean?"

"You can't judge somebody until you've seen what they've been going through."

"So I can't understand how you feel in jail because I've never been there?" asks Ellington. "Exactly, like some people tell you to keep your head-up. How're you going to keep your head up in a situation like this?"

"Locked down in your room twenty hours a day, seven days a week."

"Easy for you to say, hard for me to do." And that's turned out to be true. Since this meeting, three of the five have had their privileges, like book group, suspended because of bad behavior.